chapter  8
15 Pages

The Lingering Impact of the Scopes Trial on High School Biology Textbooks


The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 began a scientific revolution that changed many people’s view of the world. Although Darwin’s ideas were controversial, in the United States he had a powerful advocate: Harvard’s Asa Gray, an evangelical Chris­ tian who was America’s leading botanist and president of the American Asso­ ciation for the Advancement of Science (of which William Jennings Bryan-one of John Scopes’s prosecutors-was a member). Gray, who helped arrange for the publication of Origin in the United States, was the only Amer­ ican taken into Darwin’s confidence before Origin was published (Larson 1989). Gray espoused a progressive, God­ driven evolution of life. Although some people were disturbed by Darwin’s ideas, Gray’s reconciliation of God and evolution eased many people’s concerns about evolution (Scott 1994, Moore 1997). Gray’s First Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology (1857; later renamed The Elements of Botany) was the leading botany textbook of the late 19th century and the first high school textbook after the publication of Origin to include Darwin’s ideas about evolution. Early in the 20th century the public’s concerns about evolution resurfaced, for by the end of World War I, religious attitudes in the United States had shifted. A perceived decline in morality, along with a collective longing for the seeming simplicity of prewar life, prompted many people to reexamine and increasingly rely on their religious faith for comfort and stability. Religious fundamentalism, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, became increas­ ingly popular. People who endorsed biblical literalism got their name-fundamentalists-from a series of 12 small pamphlets (containing 90 articles) entitled The Fundamentals that were written between 1910 and 1915. These pamphlets, whose publication was funded by Lyman and Milton Steward (the founders of the Union Oil Company), proclaimed biblical literalism as the antidote to “modernism.” Millions of the pamphlets were distributed (Larson 1989, Clouse 1995). In the 1920s, fundamentalists tried to translate their beliefs into political reform and thereby save the nation’s morality. After a successful crusade to outlaw liquor, fundamentalists set out to eliminate discussions of evolution in public schools. Led by religious leaders such as William Bell Riley, J. Frank Norris, and-most prominently-William Jennings Bryan, fundamentalists began a campaign that blamed Darwin’s ideas for the decline of the nation’s morality. Fundamentalist preachers such as Billy Sunday (a former Chicago Cubs outfielder) used theatrical services to link evolution with eugenics, pros­ titution, and crime; Aimee Semple McPherson presided at ritual hangings of “monkey teachers”; other preachers claimed that Darwin’s ideas promoted the four Ps: prostitution, perversion, pornography, and permissiveness (Gould 1983, Larson 1997, de Camp 1969). According to fundamentalists, antievolution laws represented a return to prewar normalcy, just as creation­ ism in the public schools represented a public validation of a populist lifestyle (Larson 1997, Taylor and Condit 1988).